Re-framing the toddler tantrum
Yesterday E threw a whopper of a tantrum. She had just woken from a nap and I wanted to change her diaper so we could move on to other fun activities, like going to the park and such. She wasn’t ready, but I changed her diaper anyway and got a few kicks and thrashes from her for my trouble, which set her off on the aforementioned whopper.
I had learned from my parent/toddler class at Seattle Central Community College that when your kid throws a tantrum, your job is to stay calm and love them through it, and when they have come back to earth, talk about what just happened. You name the feelings (“That made you mad, didn’t it?!”), talk about what triggered the behavior in the first place (“It’s not safe to run in the road, that’s why I stopped you.”), and then move on. I also had recently read this article from a website I just discovered called Hand in Hand Parenting that has interesting and fresh perspectives on parenting (What? I live in North Seattle! I freaking wear Danskos! Of course I seek out granola crap like this!). It’s nominally about sleep (from when I was
slobberingly desperate on the quest to help E sleep better), but also has some thoughts about children releasing emotion that resonated with me. The author postulates that night waking can sometimes be a result of pent-up emotions or grieving over unmet needs that occurred at some point earlier. In this framework, if the child is permitted space to release these feelings closer to when they first arise and the parent stays present and witnesses the release with loving acceptance, then they won’t be haunted by the feelings later. So I decided to re-frame The Tantrum, to see it as a healthy sweep of the emotional decks, so that future behavior is not influenced by old hurts. Even if E continues to wake in the night, I figure it’s a good precedent to set–for her to learn to validate her emotions, clear them safely, and then to quickly move on, unencumbered by bad feelings.
Thus, when she threw herself on the floor and was crying and gnashing her teeth, I sat near her in the rocking chair and waited for a minute, then, while she was still crying, I asked her if she wanted to be picked up. She whimpered “Yeah.” I started to sing to her but then stopped as she continued to wail; between gasps, she asked for the song, so I began to sing again. After a few minutes, she asked for her blanket, and then, a little later, for milk.
After she had soothed herself back to calmness, I told her I had made a mistake, changing her diaper before she was ready. I said, “That made you mad, Mommy changing your diaper before you were ready.” She was quiet and we continued to rock and snuggle for a bit, then she asked to get down, ready to move on. Later, I commended her for asking for what she needed to help soothe her–the song, the blanket, the milk. She knew what she needed to move through the feelings and my aim was to give her space to do so.